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Ecstasy & Raving - "Everything Started with an E"

For that majority of the British population with no direct experience of rave culture, E stands for "danger".

It evokes images of teenagers robbed of their lives; kids suffering from heatstroke through over-exertion and dehydration, being rushed to hospital with internal bleeding. Or it triggers mind's eye scenes of frenzied delirium, deranged dancing, zombie-like trances and un-English mass hysteria.

But for the several millions of young and not-so-young people who've passed through the dance-and-drug culture during rave's ten year lifespan, Ecstasy is normal, as banal and benign as a pint of lager. For many, E equals predictable, obvious, even slightly naff; in a word, "safe".

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It wasn't always this way. In the late Eighties, Ecstasy was exalted as "the magic pill," a miraculous agent of individual and social transformation. It was the sacrament--the communion wafer, if you will--of a secular religion whose "loved up" adherents believed that house music and MDMA were set to change the world. At the height of the Eighties go-for-it, go-it-alone enterprise boom--whose spirit was encapsulated in Margaret Thatcher's infamous proclamation "there is no such thing as society"-- Ecstasy catalysed an explosion of suppressed social energies. Rave's values -- collectivity, spirituality, the joy of losing yourself in the crowd--were literally counter to the dominant culture. Ecstasy's empathy and intimacy inducing effects didn't just offer a timely corrective to Thatcher-sponsored social atomisation; the drug was also the remedy for the English diseases of class-consciousness, reserve and emotional constipation.

But why did all this happen in the context of house and techno music? The drug seemed to fit the music like a glove. On E, its repetitive rhythms induced a blissed trance rather than irritation. And because MDMA intensifies sensations to the brink of pre-hallucinogenic synaesthesia, house and techno's ultra-vivid electronic textures became even more sensuously tactile, so that the music seemed to caress your skin and surround you like a fluid, immersive environment. You're probably familiar with the story of how a bunch of holiday making DJs discovered the synergy between house and Ecstasy in the clubs of Ibiza; how they brought the anything-goes "Balearic" vibe back to cool-crippled London in late 1987; how by the summer of '88, the trippy, futuristic sound of Chicago acid house had spawned the most demonized British subculture since punk, which then spilled out into the English countryside in '89 as inner city warehouse parties evolved into massive raves in fields near the M25. It's a tale that, if not exactly sting-less, is certainly thrice told. But there's a case for saying that musical revolutions actually have their biggest impact a few years after their over-mythologized, "official" origins, when the ideas have filtered from the metropolitan hipster cliques through to suburbia. Just as punk continued to prosper and mutate in the provinces for years after Sid Vicious's death, similarly rave really became a mass bohemia during the three year period 1990-92.

A huge circuit of legal, commercial raves developed, while the liberalisation of licensing hours allowed for rave-style clubs with all-night dancing. It was also in 1990 that home-grown British house music really took off, breaking the dependence on Black American imports from Chicago, Detroit and New York. As sampling and sequencing technology got cheaper, hordes of teenage DJ/producers made tracks dirt-cheap on simple  computer set-ups in their bedrooms, then sold these "white label" 12-inches direct to specialist record stores. Propelled by the demographic heft of the rave nation, these "hardcore" rave tunes bombarded the pop charts throughout 1991-92, despite next to no airplay. Hardcore was also the birth of a uniquely British rave sound--a mutant hybrid of hip hop breakbeats, seismic reggae bass, stabbing riffs and mindwarping samples. At the pop end of the hardcore spectrum, groups like The Prodigy, Altern-8, N-Joi, and SL2 invaded the Top Five. At the more underground end, hardcore was the staple of the pirate radio stations that infested the FM airwaves, and the ruling sound at illegal raves, which resurged massively in 1991 through the efforts of crusty-traveller outfits like Spiral Tribe.

As an anarchic cultural force, rave culture peaked in the summer of 1992, when the biggest commercial raves peaked at 25 to 35 thousand, and the techno traveller festival at Castlemorton Common in the West Country drew an estimated forty thousand revellers during its six days of highly illegal existence. By 1993, though,
rave culture was in disarray: illegal raves were systematically crushed by local police forces across the country, the commercial rave circuit was in decline owing to bad vibes and rip-off events. Hardcore had always been less utopian than the uplifting house of 1988-89,.

During the early Nineties, as ravers took progressively higher doses of Ecstasy and amphetamine, the subculture's metabolic rate accelerated drastically, resulting in ever-escalating tempos and a vibe that exhilaratingly blended euphoria and aggression. The result was a teenage "rush" culture that had more in common with videogames, extreme sports and joyriding than late Sixties transcendence-through-altered-states. By 1993, hyperkinetic hardcore rave plunged into the darkside, becoming the convulsive, bad-trippy soundtrack to paranoia, panic attacks and eerie feelings of the uncanny (all symptoms of long-term Ecstasy abuse).

As the scene's atmosphere deteriorated, many abandoned the large one-off raves for the milder song-oriented house music of the club scene; those that persisted with the rave spirit witnessed the evolution of hardcore into jungle, a sound and a subculture as revolutionary as acid house, but blacker in sound and militant in mood. By the mid-Nineties, rave culture--hitherto a chaos of social and sonic mixing--was stratifying into increasingly narrowcast scenes organised around race, class, and region. Once, you could go to a rave and not know who you'd end up talking to, or what kind of music you'd be exposed to; now, it was all too easy to choose a soundtrack that guaranteed satisfaction but no surprises, and to ensure that you only mixed with "your own kind".

Club culture became professionalized, with the rise of "superclubs" like Cream, Renaissance and Ministry of Sound (mini-corporations who raked in the money with merchandising, sponsorship deals, even club tours that took their legendary "vibe" around the county), and with the emergence of a Premier League of star DJs who travelled up and down the UK, earning up to two thousand pounds for a two-hour set, and often playing several gigs per night at the weekend.

All this took the edge out of E culture. As the late Gavin Hills, journalist and acid house veteran, put it: "Ecstasy culture is like a video-recorder now: an entertainment device, something you use for a certain element of pleasure. The club structure is like the pub structure: it has a role in our society." That role is arguably as a kind of safety-valve/social-control mechanism, with youth living for the temporary utopia of the loved-up weekend rather than investing their idealism in a long-term collective project of political change. It's the traditional working class "culture of consolation", with three E's replacing ten pints. And E, the magic pill, has lost both its aura of enchantment and its status as the most favoured drug of the "chemical generation"; it is now just one brain-blitzing weapon in the neurochemical arsenal.

Because of this "polydrug" culture of mixing-and-matching, the atmosphere in clubs has changed: instead of the clean, clear high of MDMA and the electric connection between total strangers, the vibe is bleary and untogether. Instead of getting "loved up", people talk of getting "messy". In 1998, there's a feeling of exhaustion in British dance-and-drug culture, inevitably accompanied by a longing to return to the moment when it all felt so fresh and innocent and world-historical. There's been a boom in old skool nostalgia, with Back to '88/'89 or Back to '91/92 raves. Pop critics usually condemn nostalgia as a weak willed retreat from the problems and challenges of the present. But sometimes nostalgia can be the recognition of real loss--in rave's case, the loss of the chaos in the culture and the madness in the music. Certain periods in the life of an individual or a culture are simply more intense, precious and *on fire* than others; nostalgia can be the first step towards reigniting the spark.

1975--as stagnant a year for rock as 1998 has proved to be for dance music--was the year of pub rock, an overtly nostalgic, back-to-basics initiative that nonetheless paved the way for punk. Throughout the factionalised genrescape of post-rave music, there are pockets of resistance to the club mainstream, scenes that hark back to earlier peaks of rave but contains seeds of renewal.

There's the party-hard fervour and rave'n'roll delinquency of Big Beat, the apocalyptic furore of Gabba, and above all the militant euphoria of "filthy acid techno", the sound popular on London's squat-rave scene. For people who remember the original 1988 acid house, this crusty-raver sound seems retrogressive. But then seen-it-all fogies accused the Sex Pistols of being merely a rehash of the Who. In other respects, the squat rave scene--with its cheap admission, lack of security, and no-frills squalor --is in revolt against the overpriced, commercialised clubbing mainstream (just as pub rock and punk resisted pomp rock's stadium spectaculars). The squat-rave scene offers a return to acid house's original principles; all that's needed is a twist of novelty (sonic or pharmacological) and you'd have rave's very own punk. Whether the next revolution comes from this quarter or another, for now at least the squat-rave's present tense immediacy--captured in the anthem/rallying cry "London Acid City: Our Time Is Now"--is simply refreshing in a year of wan, wistful retrospection.


 

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